Joe Lo | The Ferret July 15, 2019
Environmental campaigners have called on the Scottish Government’s economic development agency not to spend taxpayers’ money subsidising a controversial new form of underwater mining.
A report commissioned by Scottish Enterprise echoed concerns that deep sea mining could lead to “the potential extinction of unique species” – but the agency has refused to rule out investing in the industry.
Deep sea mining envisages machines sucking up the seabed so that minerals like cobalt and manganese can be extracted for use in products such as mobile phones, wind turbines and batteries.
Although no mining has begun yet, mining sites have been proposed in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and near Peru and Japan.
The UK government, in collaboration with US arms company Lockheed Martin, has a license to mine an area larger than England off the west coast of Mexico.
An April 2017 report into deep sea mining commissioned by Scottish Enterprise was made public in July after a freedom of information request by Greenpeace’s Unearthed website.
The report was written by the research arm of Subsea UK which describes itself “the champion” of the UK under-sea industry. “The environmental impacts of deep sea mining are not fully understood,” cautioned the report.
“The activities involved in subsea mining could have detrimental impacts on localised populations as well as an impact on world oceans through the potential extinction of unique species that form the first rung of the food chain.”
Scottish Enterprise said that it regularly undertook research into markets to understand their potential for Scotland’s businesses. “This report was commissioned to highlight the market potential in a range of sectors such as aquaculture and marine renewables, that Scotland’s subsea capability could be appropriate for in future market activity,” David Rennie, the agency’s head of oil and gas, told Unearthed.
“As yet we have not made any decisions, or progressed any activity, on how we might develop seabed mining. Other sectors such as marine renewables and aquaculture are likely to offer more immediate opportunities and any significant developments in seabed mining are likely to be some years off.”
But Friends of the Earth Scotland called for funding to be blocked now. “Scottish Enterprise should immediately rule out any support for deep sea mining,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.
“It is absurd to even be considering putting public money into such a damaging activity at a time when the life in our oceans is already under so much threat from climate change, over fishing, plastic pollution and oil extraction.”
Greenpeace UK urged politicians to be held to account for planning to spend taxpayers’ money on deep sea mining. “Scottish Enterprise is well aware of the potential environmental risks and there needs to be much more of a public conversation about whether citizens, including avid Blue Planet fans, are prepared to permit the potential extinction of species and risking making climate change worse,” said the group’s oceans campaigner, Louisa Casson.
She authored a Greenpeace report in 2019 warning that deep sea mining could make climate change worse by releasing carbon stored in sediments or by disrupting process which help scavenge carbon and deliver it to those sediments. Marine life naturally absorbs carbon, carrying some of it to the seafloor when they die.
That we should be destroying these things is so deeply tragic. David Attenborough, broadcaster
Wildlife broadcaster, David Attenborough, has pointed out that the deep sea is where life began. “That we should be destroying these things is so deeply tragic,” he told the BBC. “I mean, that humanity should just plough on with no regard for the consequences, because they don’t know what they are.”
The UK parliament’s cross-party environmental audit committee has warned that deep sea mining would have “catastrophic impacts on the seafloor site and its inhabitants”. In a report, MPs called on the UK government not to use its deep sea mining licenses and to pressure other countries and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) not to issue any more licenses.
The committee also criticised regulation of the industry.”We are concerned that the ISA, the licensing body for seabed exploration, also stands to benefit from revenues, which is a clear conflict of interest,” they said.
A Scottish Enterprise spokesperson told The Ferret: “Developments in seabed mining are closely controlled and regulated by the International Seabed Authority and the industry is very much in its infancy. Should any project be brought forward in the future it would be subject to rigorous economic and environmental due diligence.”
The Scottish Government said it supports “clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse seas, balancing sustainable development with environmental protection”.
A government spokesperson added: “Any deep sea mining would be subject to regulatory controls and thorough assessment, including conducting an environmental appraisal.”
Three companies mentioned in the Scottish Enterprise report as potential recipients of support are Royal IHC, 2H Offshore and Soil Machine Dynamics. They all design machinery which could be used in deep sea mining and are all ultimately foreign-owned.
Royal IHC is majority-owned by the wealthy Dutch de Bruin family. 2H Offshore is ultimately owned by two US billionaires close to Donald Trump, Henry Kravis and George Roberts. Soil Machine Dynamics is ultimately majority-owned by the Chinese government.
When asked if it subsidises foreign owned companies, Scottish Enterprise said it works with “both indigenous and international companies”. On investing in companies owned by the Chinese state, a spokesperson stressed that the agency carried out “rigorous due diligence”.
Government wildlife and environment agencies all declined to comment, including Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s chief scientist, Christine Maggs.